‘Rise’ Boss Jason Katims on His Journey From Playwright to TV and Making All His Shows ‘Personal’

Jason Katims Variety Facetime Interview
Jose Mandojana for Variety

Jason Katims knows the world of small-town high school dramas. In 2006, he launched NBC’s “Friday Night Lights.” Now, 12 years later, he’s revisiting small-town life with his high school musical series “Rise.” “In a sense, this show does owe something to ‘Friday Night Lights’ because it’s a story about this town — and it’s not a privileged town, they’re not privileged people,” Katims says. “In a weird way both shows ultimately become about community.”

What first inspired you to start writing?

I was in college, and I took an English comp class, which was a required class, and the professor had us keep a journal. She said that it was part of the requirement of the class just to write in your journal a couple of times a week, and then once a week she would put everyone in a circle and would say, “OK anybody who wants to read from your journal, go ahead and read.” And so one week I read something, and after I finished, she said, “Do you realize what that is? That’s a short story.” And that sort of got me on this road, really. From that point on, I took every writing course I could and eventually took a playwriting class and was like, “Eureka, this is it!”

Was there a particular piece of media that influenced you to make the switch from writing plays to writing television?

The way I got into writing plays was I saw a production of “True West” with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, and it was a really magical experience in a tiny theater in New York. It was really exciting, and I was a struggling playwright for awhile, but the way I got into television was not by design. I had a short play that was published in a collection, and Ed Zwick read this play and called me. I basically came to television through that connection. I started working on “My So-Called Life” and that experience was sort of my graduate school — working with people who took television to a high art.

Do you feel differently now than when you first started writing professionally about how much of your own life and family you want to reflect on-screen?

The one thing that you kind of learn is a writer is this paradox that the more personal something is that you write, the more universal it seems. I felt like I wanted stuff to be personal, but I never wanted to lean into autobiography because I felt like my job as a writer of fiction was to find myself in these storylines — to find how I connected to these storylines. When I took on “Friday Night Lights,” for example, I didn’t know anything about football. I remember going to upfronts, and people came to me — literally — like, “Are you going to be able to do this?” And I was like, “Oh, this is exactly what’s happening with Coach Taylor, where he’s being asked to win a championship and it’s being expected of him.” So when I had that experience, it helped understand his point of view. And then when I was writing the pilot of “Parenthood,” I had to figure out how to make this show different from the movie. I have a son with autism, and I was like, “That would be different.” But I struggled with that because it was more personal than I wanted to be. And I struggled with whether or not it would be OK in terms of privacy for my son and my family. At one point I took that storyline out when I was still developing it. I was hesitant because it was so personal, but I also didn’t want it to take over the show. Because once I put it in, it wasn’t going to be a small part of the show because I know what it’s like to be a parent of somebody like that. It was interesting, and I really think the pilot of that show and that storyline is what, more than anything, made it feel real to people at the beginning of that show. But “Parenthood” was a very different show [to my others] because it is the closest to autobiographical that I’ve done.

How personal is “Rise” to you?

I married my high school sweetheart, so the story between Robbie and Lilette, I feel like I have a way in. They’re not directly autobiographical, but I always try to find a way to make them personal to me. One of the things I’ve said for years and years in the writers’ rooms is, “What would really happen?” You know, don’t tell me the story that you’ve created and what you want to happen — what would really happen? And one of the things I also think is really important is to think about everybody’s point of view in the scene. I think it can be natural for some writers to focus on the guy or the girl they’re writing about — getting them from here to here — but the other people in the scene, they’re not there just to serve this person, so it’s basically trying to keep all of those things alive. I’m always trying to challenge myself and ask if this is honest and real.

Do you feel you know the theater world better now than you knew the football world when you started “Friday Night Lights?”

I do feel a little bit, as I did in “Friday Night Lights,” of an outsider in terms of the theater world. Even though I started by writing plays, I never did musicals, and I never did high school theater. And also it’s been a very long time! So I did feel a bit like a fish out of water in a way that I felt was good and was in the same way I felt about football and “Friday Night Lights.” I actually felt it was to my great advantage in both cases because it kept me honest. These stories need to resonate whether or not I’m into theater or into football. They need to work assuming no knowledge of theater or of football.

What stories that you didn’t get to do on “Friday Night Lights” were important to you to tackle on “Rise,” coming back to the world of high school at a different time in the culture? And similarly, what stories did you do on “Friday Night Lights” that you wanted to do again but with a new lens or commentary?

We’re exploring a transgender character, and there’s a very big storyline with Simon and his emerging sexuality over the course of the season — which are things “Friday Night Lights” didn’t lend itself to explore. I am excited about doing that now. We’re also going to explore alcoholism, teen pregnancy — which we did on “Friday Night Lights” but we’re doing in a different way here.

The audience may be looking to find positivity and guidance from Lou (Josh Radnor) the way they did from Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) on “Friday Night Lights.” How do you compare them?

To me, they couldn’t be more different — just in terms of how they are. Coach Taylor’s charm was he was not an intellectual — more like the coach character we have on “Rise” — a man of few words, and when he did come in there and do a half-time speech, you were like, “Whoa” because he doesn’t normally do that. Lou is different. But I do think they’re both great mentors, and while they have their own individual struggles, I think they both have a great moral compass.

What is the trajectory for the mounting of the “Spring Awakening” high school musical?

We’ll watch that production take form over the course of the season, leading up to opening night. It’s a really fun part of the season because you start in the first few episodes with just playing to piano, and then the band comes in and changes the whole dynamic, and then lighting and sets. It’s really fun to see that evolve. And they have to deal with not only their own challenges to put the play up but also the community and the district and some of the parents objecting to the material and how that affects them leading up to opening night.

Did you have discussions about not including songs — or other pieces of the musical — in every episode so that when you do come back to them they feel fresher after some time away?

Again taking a page from “Friday Night Lights,” one of the things I thought singled the success [of that show] were episodes that had no football in it. So there are episodes of “Rise” that are very much reliant on stories that happen within the theater, but then there are episodes where it’s there, but it’s not a big part of it. It’s important to me that the world feels big. Yes, we’re putting on a show, and that provides a great engine, but what’s more important to me is how is this mother and daughter going to do and what’s going to happen with Gordy — is he going to get into a program or not? All of these character-driven, family stories. And what’s nice is “Spring Awakening” is a show about teenagers struggling in different ways, so there’s a lot that connects thematically for our characters. In Episode 5, there’s a great montage at the end where they do “My Junk,” and those moments are when I feel like the show is really working in a really beautiful way and we’re able to use the songs sometimes to just be really entertaining but sometimes to help us bring out something really emotional and help the audience resonate with the characters.

If NBC came to you and said they wanted to end the first season of “Rise” with a live production of “Spring Awakening,” is that something you could or would want to do?

It’s something we could feasibly do, but I’m not 100% sure that it would be the right thing to do for the show. It’s nothing that we’re considering. However, I do like the idea — because sometimes you only see 30 or 40 seconds of a song — of putting out the full version and making a soundtrack.